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You might exercise to improve your physical health and appearance, but did you also know that exercise has serious benefits for your mental health and relationships? It can lead to a healthier and happier life. I ran on the cross country and track team at BYU and as an avid runner and someone who has suffered from postpartum depression, I have reaped the benefits from running for nearly two decades. Running helped me tremendously throughout college, as a young mother, and in my professional life.
One of the most common mental health benefits of exercise is stress relief. Working out can help you manage physical and mental stress. Exercise also increases amounts of norepinephrine, which moderates your brain’s response to stress. So, working out will reduce stress and increase your body’s ability to deal with existing psychological stress.
Another common mental health benefit to exercise is its increase of endorphins in the brain, which create feelings of happiness and euphoria. Studies have shown that exercise can alleviate symptoms among clinically depressed persons. In some cases, exercise can be as effective as antidepressant medication in treating depression. Just 30 minutes a few times a week can instantly boost your mood.
Consistent exercise leads to improved levels of fitness. Physical fitness can boost your self-esteem and improve your self-image. Regardless of your weight, size, gender or age, exercise can improve your perception of your own attractiveness and self-worth. A study of adolescent girls found that running was linked to their greater self-esteem. Girls who could run more laps at a faster pace reportedly exhibited higher levels of self-esteem. In additional studies, overweight kids who participated in vigorous aerobic exercise such as running experience an elevation in self-esteem levels.
Running and other forms of vigorous exercise can reduce your anxiety and help you relax. The chemicals released during and after exercise can help you calm down. Also, engaging in some moderate-to-high intensity aerobic exercise (HIIT/intervals) can reduce anxiety sensitivity.
The brain releases a chemical called dopamine in response to any form of pleasure whether it’s from exercise, sex, drugs, alcohol, food, or shopping. On a positive note, exercise can help in addiction recovery. Short exercise bouts can effectively distract drug or alcohol addicts causing them to de-prioritize cravings in the short-term. Alcohol abuse disrupts many body processes, including circadian rhythms. Thus, alcoholics find that they can’t fall asleep or stay asleep without drinking. Exercise helps reboot your body’s clock and helps you go to sleep at normal time. This leads to better sleep quality. A study from Vanderbilt University found that heavy marijuana users experienced a marked decline in both cravings and daily use after a few sessions of running on a treadmill. Several other studies found that running reduces cravings for other drugs including cocaine, meth, nicotine, and alcohol.
Food can be an addiction when taken to extremes and exercise can help manage food cravings as well. Studies show that after one hour of fast running, participants were more likely to choose healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables over junk food.
Amazingly, studies have found that exercise can help your brain heal from substance abuse even when the drug is as potent as meth. Meth decreases your brain’s production of dopamine and serotonin and burns out their receptors so it is harder for the brain to use dopamine and serotonin. Running helps to re-normalize the function of these two key neurotransmitters, and increases their production.
Although exercise may not completely protect you from mental distress or illness, it definitely has positive effects beyond the gym. Furthermore, the benefits available to you through regular, consistent exercise go beyond your mental and physical health. When you feel better it affects other aspects of your life such as your relationships with family, friends, and co-workers. Improved mental health can lead to improved relationships and a healthier and happier life.
Whitney is a therapist at the Spanish Fork Center for Couples and Families. She received masters degrees from BYU in Exercise Science and California Lutheran University in Counseling Psychology with an emphasis in Marriage and Family Therapy. Whitney ran cross country and track at BYU and is an avid runner. She lives in Utah County with her husband and three children.